Guest Post: What Virginia Tech is Doing Right (and Wrong)

This post is a letter from my mentor, Leslie Habetler, to some of her crisis planning and management clients. With her permission, I’m reposting it here.

As I watch this unfold, I thought it might be helpful to point some things out that would be helpful if you ever face such a situation (in any scale). First it is obvious they have a crisis response plan and they are doing a lot right.

For those of you whom I have helped in this way, you can see what they are doing right in handling the media. The President has obviously had good media coaching and they are keeping a careful log of everything they are doing so the media knows they are acting in an
aggressively appropriate manner. The university media person is cranking out updates for him at a rapid pace and they are posting them on the website and on every medium available to keep rumor down. The police chief is not losing his cool but his exhaustion is clear and he is suffering from the trauma of what he has seen. He is being very very careful and doing a good job in the face of some extremely insistent media.

The problem as I see it is the media is in control of the conference and that must never happen. If you are ever in this situation, it is vital that you stay in control of these media briefings.

You must face the media but you get to set the rules…don’t ever let them think otherwise. Here is what I would do from the beginning: Set up the media conference time, make it clear that the president and the police chief will make an update statement and then open it up to questions. So far so good.

Here is what is not happening: The pr person is not setting adequate boundaries and rules. Most important is setting a time limit for the Q&A period and spelling out rules for asking questions. Such as: requiring them to raise their hand and be recognized in order to ask a question. (They are all shouting at him and he is exhausted) Also notice that the reporters are
asking the same questions over and over in slightly different ways to try to get the Chief to spill some previously unspilled ‘beans’. Learn to say, “I have answered that question” and recognize someone else. Or even “asked and answered” And then move on to another reporter.
Notice also that some reporters are trying to put words in his mouth. Learn to say, “Those are your words, not mine”. and move on to another reporter.

You must be in charge. At the end of the allotted Q&A time, your pr person must step up to the mike and say “we have time for one more question” and then step up again to thank them for coming, telling them when the next briefing is and direct them to the website where updates will be posted. (While he is doing this, someone is getting you off that stage and out of
there.)

You will probably never face anything of this magnitude but it is at least worth noting and thinking through with your employees.

Best regards to all of you, Leslie Habetler

Photo: Alan Kim, The Roanoke Times via Associated Press

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